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Prince of Havoc, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  "Anyone else have needs like that?" Victor looked past Kai to the black-haired, dark-eyed man seated on his left. "Hohiro, how are your people set?"

  "We are, as you say, good to go." Hohiro shattered the image of Japanese inscrutability he occasionally cultivated by smiling broadly. "Our people here struck a severe blow to the enemy, and the rest of us look forward to exploiting it."

  "As do we all." Victor frowned as he thought for a moment. "Okay, what I'd like to do with the salvage is this: every unit gets its pick of what they took down. They can bring themselves up to full strength plus ten percent. Any salvage over that goes into a pool to be sold off and rolled into a trust for the survivors of those slain, and for those who've been wounded here. Also, let the units supplement their salvage from the warehouses. I want them rebuilding themselves while we're gone. It will give them something to do and, if things go bad for us, we may well need them."

  Cranston nodded. "I'll have the orders cut and issued."

  "Good." Victor straightened up and folded his arms across his chest. "Let's move on to discussing the journey to Strana Mechty."

  Kai laughed lightly. "You make it sound like a stroll. We'll be invading the Clan homeworld."

  Hohiro lifted a hand. "Are we certain we know exactly where Strana Mechty is?"

  Cranston typed an inquiry into his noteputer. "We have a variety of independent sources pinpointing a particular star system nearby. It's one jump away and the observatory on the Barbarossa reports there are planets in the system. At least one seems habitable, and some indications sound like Strana Mechty's a touch on the dry side. We don't have a trace on the ilKhan's ship after it escaped Huntress, but it seems safe to assume he went to Strana Mechty.

  "If he didn't, he's removed himself from political power, which means we don't have to deal with him."

  Redburn's eyes hardened. "He's still a Smoke Jaguar warrior. He's got to die. Him and those with him."

  The vehemence in Redburn's voice tightened Victor's guts. We sent the Serpents here to destroy the warriors and they have, save for Lincoln Osis and his personal guards. Victor knew he and his people would have to finish that job, but the idea of executing a man who abandoned his homeworid made him uneasy. Fleeing, he proved himself no longer a warrior.

  The Precentor Martial nodded. "General Redburn has a very good point. From my experience with the Clans, I do think going to Strana Mechty and challenging them to a Trial of Refusal concerning the invasion is the only way to proceed."

  Kai pressed his hands flat to the table. "We could go there and force the issue, or we could wait here for them to send a delegation to us. It could be they'll sue for peace. Making them Come to a subjugated world to do so would humble them a peg or two."

  Victor nodded. "I agree, Kai, but we all know the Clans are not a single unified front. A Smoke Jaguar surrender here wouldn't be seen as binding on the other Clans. We could delay deciding whether to go to Strana Mechty while we wait to see what they're going to do, but a quick move that links the defeat here with a challenge there is important."

  "Victor, I think you must not look beyond Kai's point for a moment," Hohiro said. "While I am not afraid to go to Strana Mechty, we know that defending a world from an invader is much easier titan invading."

  Victor nodded. "I intend to invoke safcon when we arrive there."

  Kai blinked. "Would you allow them to freely land troops on New Avalon just because they asked nicely?"

  "No, but then I don't think my warriors are the pinnacle of a human eugenics program that makes them homo sapiens parabellum, either. Given their sense of honor, I bet they'll let us come down." Victor shrugged. "All I can do is ask, if they say no, we fight our way in and things get very messy." Andrew Redbum sat back in his chair. "I'm for going to Strana Mechty before they can come here. Any time we give them allows them to prepare defenses or summon troops. No reason to do that."

  Cranston looked up from his noteputer. "We also have the very real question as to whether or not any delegation will show op. If the Clans view this as a Smoke Jaguar problem, and the ilKhan has already fled, they may not think this involves them at all. It's up to us to make sure they know all of them are wrapped up in this assault."

  "True, by singling out one Clan, we allow the others to distance themselves from the possibility of defeat." Kai nodded toward the Precentor Martial. "Notwithstanding the evidence of their mortality on Tukayyid."

  Focht adjusted his eye patch with his right hand. "Tukayyid was eight years ago—a warrior generation and a half as far as the Clans are concerned. It's history to their minds, not current events. The push to Strana Mechty should be as soon as possible."

  The Prince smiled. "I agree. We need to go, and go now. Here, on Huntress, we waged a kind of war virtually unknown to the Clans. Their style of warfare has forever limited the damage done because their ancestors knew all too well the horrors of war carried out unrestrained. By ritualizing warfare as they did, they were divorced from the true consequences of war. We've showed them we can win our kind of war here. Now we need to go to Strana Mechty, play by their rules, and show them we can defeat them, all of them, their way."

  Redburn smiled. "I'll have a company ready to go by first light."

  "Good." Victor's brows furrowed. "General Redburn, what do we know about Lincoln Osis and his departure here?"

  Redburn scratched at his white beard for a moment, then hunched forward, leaning his elbows on the table. "There were scattered witness reports about his evacuation. Elemental carried him from the Jag command center a minute or so before it exploded. There was supposedly a nekekami team in here doing the demolition and its leader apparently challenged Osis to single combat with swords."

  Kai blinked. "Nekekami?"

  Redburn nodded. "I didn't know anything of their presence until I reviewed General Winston's files after her death. Apparently she didn't know of them either until she did the same with Morgan's files. They were a gift to Morgan from Theodore Kurita, or so it would seem."

  Victor nodded. "Not a surprise. Spirit cats can be useful. I take it they were unsuccessful in killing Osis."

  "After the challenge was issued, the rest of the team left before the fight was decided, so we don't really know. The leader hasn't showed up, nor have we identified a body. Osis was supposed to be grossly wounded, and a ship did lift shortly after the fight. Could be he's dead, but those Elemental, they take a lot of killing."

  Victor glanced at Kai. "So I've heard."

  "For an Elemental to have become ilKhan, he must be very resilient." Kai smiled sheepishly. "The Elementals I've known were all tough, but to be elected Khan and then ilKhan, this one must have been truly impressive. Until I saw the body and pumped a few kilojoules of energy into it, I'd not believe he was dead."

  "So, we'll have to assume he's alive and either on Strana Mechty or running." Victor crossed his arms over his chest. "Precentor Martial, any idea how he would be greeted there, wounded, with his Clan's homeworld captured?"

  Focht thought for a second. "Well, the fact that he was here at all is significant. The ilKhan is usually elevated above Clan fights, but Osis appears to have kept his hand in as far as Smoke Jaguar problems are concerned. The fact that there were no other Clans represented here could very easily mean that this whole fight was seen as a Smoke Jaguar problem. Very obviously, the Smoke Jaguars are finished as a power, so politically he's going to be weak. Even so, unless he's challenged to a Trial of Refusal, he will remain ilKhan until he's either dead or he steps down."

  Kai looked over at Focht. "Is there a chance the Jags could have kept this secret from the rest of the Clans?"

  "It's possible, I suppose, but with some of the Nova Cats coming over to the Star League, hiding what has happened in the Inner Sphere would be difficult." Focht shook his head. "We've spotted some Clan ships still making information runs into our systems, and they've certainly gotten plenty of broadcast data about our victories. I can't believe they wouldn't know,
and that the Jaguars' foes haven't already pilloried Osis with his Clan's failures."

  Victor frowned. "With his being weak, both physically and politically, it's not likely we'd win any real peace by defeating him and any scraps of the Smoke Jaguars still on Strana Mechty. We will have to offer a challenge to the Clans in general and see who responds."

  Cranston sighed. "Oh, that will be fun. Then we'll have to sort out all the claims to fight this Clan and that from our side."

  "Meaning, Jerry?"

  "Meaning, Highness, that you'll have to pick and choose who gets to fight whom. The Rasalhague contingent will want the honor of defeating the Wolves, I'm certain. Hohiro will want the Smoke Jaguars, and so on."

  Victor rubbed a hand over his jaw. "That's a point I'd not considered. We'll have to match our forces to theirs, allowing ourselves the best chances for success."

  "Jerry is right," Hohiro said. "I'd want to take on the Smoke Jaguars, but if Osis is leading them, he should face you, leader to leader."

  Victor blinked at Hohiro. "I don't know what surprises me more, my friend, your willingness to give me the Smoke Jaguars or the suggestion that I'd be nuts enough to face down an Elemental all by myself."

  "I don't think you that stupid, Victor, but we know how important appearances are to the Clans."

  "And, being from the Draconis Combine, you'd know nothing of form being as important as substance."

  Hohiro laughed. "Consider my sensitivity to such things the basis for my suggestion."

  Victor raised an eyebrow at him. "Besides, you've fought the Smoke Jaguars before and seen an Elemental up close, correct?"

  "Victor, for the last seven months, as we traveled here, you have trained hard in single-combat techniques." Hohiro opened his hands easily. "I do not think you mad enough to engage Osis one on one, but if you did, he would be surprised at how difficult you would be to kill."

  Cranston looked up. "I'll make sure you're issued a pistol to wear in your 'Mech."

  Kai rapped his knuckles on the table. "Make sure it's a big pistol, and toss in a couple of spare clips."

  Victor held his hands up. "We're getting ahead of ourselves here. We're resolved to go to Strana Mechty as soon as possible, right?"

  Getting nods of assent from the others, Victor continued. "All right, then, we need to get our units loaded and headed back to the JumpShips. I'm going to leave Paul Masters in command here. General Redburn, you'll be coming with me on the Barbarassa. That should cover everything."

  Kai frowned. "What about Morgan's murder?"

  Victor froze, a chill puckering his flesh all over. I know the rumors—the Combine did it, Katherine did it. I believe the latter, but proving it is vital. Can't do that here. "If we succeed on Strana Mechty—when we succeed at Strana Mechty—we'll have a good, long trip home. That is when we can work on Morgan's murder and, when we get home, we can see justice be done."


  Hall of the Khans, Warrior Quarter

  Strana Mechty

  Kerensky Cluster, Clan Space

  10 April 3060

  Khan Vladimir Ward of the Wolves waited until ilKhan Lincoln Osis had limped to his place at the head of the Grand Council chamber before he made his move. Head held erect, yet concealed by the enabled helmet displaying a snarling wolf's visage, he moved from his seat at the back of the hall over to the aisle bisecting the amphitheater. He descended from the highest rank of desks to the lowest, sliding into one of the two vacant spots beneath the Smoke Jaguar banner. As he removed his helmet and set it on the desk that had once been the ilKhan's own, Vlad's saKhan, Marialle Radick, slipped into the other empty spot.

  Lincoln Osis' dark eyes burned with fury. His dusky flesh had an ashen hue to it, so his eyes seemed to project the only true life in the man. Vlad had heard stories of how seriously Osis had been wounded on Huntress, with the limp and the puckered scar on his forehead being the most obvious signs of his injuries. And when he smile? I can see where he lost teeth—though I doubt he will be doing any smiling today.

  Kael Pershaw, a misshapen lump of a man commingled with machinery, took his place in front of and below the ilKhan. "I am the Loremaster. I hereby convene this conclave under the provisions of the Martial Code laid down by Nicholas Kerensky. Because We exist in a state of war, all matters shall be conducted according to these rules and regulations."

  "Seyla," the assembled Khans said as one.

  The flesh around Osis' eyes tightened. "Khan Ward, what is the meaning of your occupying the Smoke Jaguar position here in the Grand Council?"

  Vlad smiled slowly. "As I understand it, ilKhan, there are no Smoke Jaguar Khans available to the Council, and no Smoke Jaguars available to elect more. You and a handfid of your warriors escaped Huntress—apparently even before Inner Sphere reinforcements arrived there, if reports are correct Of those warriors who fled with you, only eight, have bloodnames. Your Clan is effectively dead."

  Vlad let an icy tope sharpen his words, but not a single one of his fellow Khans raised a protest. All of them, in fact, sat waiting, clad in their ceremonial uniforms, for Osis' reaction. They want to know what is going on, especially those who have never faced Inner Sphere troops. A strike against a Clan homeworld is the last thing anyone expected.

  The ilKhan's hands tightened into fists, but he did not lash out. He hesitated, and in that moment Vlad read more weakness than he had ever seen displayed by a Smoke Jaguar before. His spirit is bruised, if not broken. To be unhomed is to the without the release of oblivion.

  Osis slowly exhaled. "Huntress has fallen, yes." His statement hung in the air as heavy as the stink of the dead on a battlefield. "And, yes, I withdrew from Huntress because I fell unconscious from my wound and those caring for me believed I could only get the medical attention I needed here, on Strana Mechty. At the time we left the system, the situation was far from lost and our assumption was that the invaders would be crushed within the week. I had full confidence in the commanders on the ground, and Khan Howell was left in charge of operations. Had I known of the Inner Sphere reinforcements coming in, I would have remained behind and led our forces to victory."

  Asa Taney, a red-haired pilot of Clan Ice Hellion, removed his helmet. He rested a hand on the snout of the weasel-like creature that made up the helmet's faceplate, clearly attempting to strike a heroic pose. "IlKhan, when you say 'our forces,' do you refer to the Smoke Jaguars, or the Clans as a whole?"

  Osis' shoulders slumped a bit beneath the question. "Yes, my fellow Khans, I recall well the discussions we had here regarding the aggression by the Inner Sphere. The assault against the Smoke Jaguars became framed as an internal Smoke Jaguar matter through political maneuvering right here in this chamber. At that time, it was a clever exercise by the Wolf Khan to destroy the Smoke Jaguars, but even you must see how much of a danger that was. A homeworld has been taken, sacked, destroyed. The warriors of a Clan have been slain. None of us is immune, now, to the wrath of this Star League reborn. Whereas you did not band together before, you must, now, we must now become a united front that will not rest until this threat is destroyed."

  Vlad slowly clapped. "Bravo, ilKhan. I had not thought you capable of such passion any longer, misguided though it is."

  Osis' lips curled in a snarl. "You mock the threat."

  "No," came the voice of Jade Falcon Khan Marthe Pryde from the back of the hall. "Khan Ward mocks your analysis of the threat." She stood and opened her arms, taking in the assembly. "We have all heard the rhetoric coming from the Inner Sphere. We know this new Star League chose to attack one Clan. They are not so foolish to think they could defeat us all, nor are we so foolish as to believe they intend to defeat us all."

  "But you have no idea, Marthe, what they did on Huntress," Osis broke in. "Their aim was to destroy the Smoke Jaguars, and they waged war against more than our warriors. They waged war against our culture. We have long held in the balance the twin realities of war: its destructive capabilities and its ability to hone warriors.
By bargaining we limit the impact war has on our society, but they have done none of this. They destroyed warriors, equipment, monuments. If it had any connection to the warrior caste, it was not spared destruction. That is what we face, and if you are not frightened by it, your Clan will suffer more gravely than could be imagined."

  Echoes of the ilKhan's words died slowly in the Grand Council chamber, largely because the fear he incited prompted others to repeat his words in low whispers. Vlad himself felt his guts begin to kink, but more out of revulsion than any fear. How could they let themselves go and unleash total war on a people? Not even animals descend so low. The Inner Sphere has ever sought to prove we are not their superiors, but here they abandon any pretense of civilization to do so. The folly here is not ours for having gone to war with them, but in not prosecuting that war as fully and as fast as we could, to destroy this new scourge on mankind.

  Khan Taney pursed his lips, then lowered his eyes. "What dd you suggest, ilKhan?"

  "I suggest we immediately form a fighting force that will drive the Star League from Huntress, then we renew our assault on the Inner Sphere." as the other Khans cheered, Vlad vaulted his desk and moved into the open area between the amphitheater's desks and the ilKhan's high bench. He waved his hands to silence the others, causing the jubilation to the a slow and strangled death. Once quiet again reigned, he rested his hands on his hips and slowly shook his head.

  "You cannot let the ilKhan's madness infect you, too." Vlad looked over at Osis and sneered. "A task force, even if summoned from the homeworld garrisons, would arrive far too late to do anything to oppose the Star League troops there. Think of it, my Khans, think as you would, not as a Smoke Jaguar would. If you had successfully staged this long strike and been lucky enough to reinforce it in time to complete what had to be done, would you remain so far from home? Their supply lines are stretched impossibly. Huntress is not a viably defended place for them, and we hold many more worlds in the Inner Sphere against which they could devote their might. They will not remain on Huntress."